Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom is not that book. Which is too bad, because the book’s authorsMartin Tolchin, editor of The Hill, and Susan Tolchin, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, would seem well-suited to the task. The Tolchins are clearly well-acquainted with their subject. They’ve interviewed dozens of key members of Congress and compiled a range of tidbits and anecdotes. (Bribing your congressman was outlawed in 1853. Who knew?)

In a series of brisk chapters, the authors explain how most of today’s tangle of Congressional rules and regulations arose more or less ad hoc, usually in the wake of some particularly spectacular outrage. They trace the slow, convoluted evolution of modern Congressional ethics scandals, from Joe McCarthy to Abscam and the Keating Five, to the various sex scandals of the last decade, to a 1995 case in which aides to Rep. David MacIntosh forged budget documents in an attempt to discredit the liberal group, Alliance for Justice.

This history is revealing: rather than rely on any cogent, rational process, successful prosecution and punishment has more often hinged on the intensity of public pressure, the popularity and power of the offender, or the willingness of reformers to upset the status quo. Party leaders practically have to bribe their members to serve on ethics committees; those who do serve find themselves torn between loyalty and principle, and investigations often end in partisan stalemate. Not surprisingly, politics frequently trumps fairness. John McCain only became part of the Keating Five when angry Democrats insisted on including a Republican in the hearings, even though McCain’s offenses didn’t match those of Democrats Alan Cranston, John Glenn, Dennis DeConcini, and Don Riegle.

But readers won’t get much more than that brief history. Most of Glass Houses is poorly written and organized, and the authors have a frustrating habit of contradicting even their most basic assertions. Shortly after declaring that Congress “never arrived at any consensus about which sins should destroy careers and which should not,” the Tolchins change tack and tell us that, in fact, Congress has been “aided and abetted by the media in distinguishing which peccadilloes disgrace the institution and which can languish under wraps.” So which is it? Has the destructive power of the ethics process become “too scary to contemplate”? Or have congressmen “learned to live and prosper under the existing system” as the authors tell us a few pages later?

Such ambiguity would be permissible if it led to a persuasive thesis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. A chapter titled “The Noble Lie” promises to untangle “modern ethical dilemmas,” but instead meanders through an unilluminating survey of negative ads, broken campaign pledges, and the Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok. And in a chapter devoted to the travails of Anita Hill, Bob Packwood, and Bill Clinton, the authors conclude, underwhelmingly, that “a higher standard of behavior is expected of lawmakers than ordinary citizens expect of themselves.” All of this hints at the book’s overriding problemits disappointing lack of ambition. Glass Houses provides little of the “new information” and “new interpretations of past ethics cases” it promises. And though the authors aspire to present a definitive study of the congressional ethics process, what they’ve produced is at best a primer.

They do touch on one important paradox: There is little doubt that campaign finance reforms, sunshine laws, and tighter disclosure rules have made Congress steadily more transparent and accountable to the public; by pre-Watergate standards, the authors observe, today’s Congress is probably less corrupt than at any time in history. But public opinion of the institution has never been lower. The better we know our politicians, it seems, the less we like them. Why? It’s a good question, and one that suggests any number of more precise inquiriesinto the interplay of media coverage and public perception, or the inconsistency of ethics regulations, not to mention the Republican majority’s neglect of traditional oversight functions in favor of dubious “ethical” inquiries, which may have soured the public on the possibility of a rational ethics process. But nowhere do the authors advocate concrete ideas for how to improve the process, or even a working definition of what should be considered under the rubric of “ethics.” Unfortunately, Glass Houses ends precisely where it should begin.

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Nicholas Confessore is a New York–based political and investigative reporter at the New York Times and a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2002 to 2004.